If you're like much of today's workforce, you need to have halfway decent writing skills to succeed at your job. But if you don't have time to work on those skills, mastering a few basic rules can still make a big difference.
Maybe you've never penned a single blog entry, never been asked to write a progress report, never had to read over a colleague's work for errors, and never had to send a critically important e-mail message to your boss. If that's the case, you're free to go now. But for most of us, a certain amount of writing is part of our job — and unfortunately, our efforts aren't always as effective as they should be.
We've talked before about some of the big blunders — grammatical mistakes and misused words — that find their way into our written communications. Now, let's consider some of the general best practices that contribute to clean, consistent writing. These pointers are based on TechRepublic's in-house conventions, which are based on commonly recommended guidelines. (In other words, you don't have to agree with them. And of course, variations may exist depending on what country you live in.)
The good thing about following a few rules in your writing, even if some of them seem arbitrary or trivial, is that it frees you up to concentrate on what you're trying to say instead of trying to figure out why something doesn't sound right or worrying that it's just plain wrong.
And there's this: People will notice when your writing is tighter and more consistent. I guarantee it.
Note: This information is also available as a PDF download.
#1: EchoesBad practice: Repeated words or phrases set up an echo in the reader's head or a "Didn't I just read that?" glitch that can be distracting. Example:
- Several "but"s or "however"s or "for example"s in one paragraph (or in nearly every paragraph); a series of paragraphs that begin with "Next"
- A favorite crutch word or phrase used throughout an article ("ensure that," "as such", "that said")
#2: Nonparallel list itemsBad practice: We often use an inconsistent structure for lists or headings. Example:
We will cover these topics:
- Backing up the registry
- The Registry Editor is your friend
- Using REG files
- Use a GUI tool
- Searching the registry
- Take advantage of Favorites
- Clean the registry
#3: Agreement problemsBad practice: Sometimes we lose track of what the subject is, and our verb doesn't match. Examples:
- Neither of the editors are very smart.
- The dog, as well as the goat and chicken, are easy to parallel park.
- One-third of the company are color blind.
#4: Referring to companies, organizations, etc., as "they"Bad practice: A company — or any collective group that's being referred to as a single entity — is often treated as plural, but it shouldn't be. Examples:
- I wish Wal-Mart would get their pot hole fixed.
- Microsoft said they'll look at the problem.
#5: Hyphenating "ly" adverbsBad practice: "ly" adverbs never take a hyphen, but they pop up a lot. Examples:
- We like to avoid commonly-used expressions.
- Click here for a list or recently-added downloads.
#6: Using "which" instead of "that"Bad practice: We sometimes use "which" to set off an essential clause (instead of "that"). Examples:
- The meeting which was scheduled for 1:00 has been cancelled.
- The option which controls this feature is disabled.
#7: Wordy constructions; deadwood phrases
Nothing is worse for a reader than having to slog through a sea of unnecessary verbiage. Here are a few culprits to watch for in your own writing.
|Has the ability to||can|
|At this point in time||now|
|Due to the fact that||because|
|In order to||to|
|In the event that||if|
|Prior to the start of||before|
#8: Using "that" instead of "who"Bad practice: Some writers use "that" to refer to people. Examples:
- The bartender that took my money disappeared.
- The end user that called this morning said he found my money.
- The folks that attended the training said it was a waste of time.
#9: Inconsistent use of the final serial commaBad practice: One convention says to use a comma to set off the final item in a series of three or more items; another (equally popular) convention says to leave it out. But some writers bounce between the two rules. Examples:
- Word, Excel, and Outlook are all installed. (OR: Word, Excel and Outlook are all installed.)
- Open the dialog box, click on the Options tab, and select the Enable option. (OR: Open the dialog box, click on the Options tab and select the Enable option.)
#10: Using a comma to join two dependent clausesBad practice: Commas are a great source of controversy and often the victim of misguided personal discretion. But there is this rule: Two dependent clauses don't need one. Examples:
- I hid the ice cream, and then told my sister where to find it.
- The user said he saved the file, but somehow deleted it.
Jody Gilbert has been writing and editing technical articles for the past 25 years. She was part of the team that launched TechRepublic and is now senior editor for Tech Pro Research.